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What Is Product Liability?

One of the most significant developments in 20th century jurisprudence is the evolution of product liability law. Under product liability law, manufacturers, sellers, retailers, and suppliers of products have a duty to ensure that products introduced into the marketplace are as safe as reasonably possible, and may be held legally and financially accountable for injuries caused by their products. That does not seem like a particularly revolutionary notion until you consider the fact that all actors involved in the chain of commerce may be held liable for injury-producing products even if they are completely faultless. This is called “strict liability,” and it is what makes product liability so unique among personal injury laws.

Product liability law is complex, and each state has developed its own particular laws, which are comprised of cases and statutes. However, the broad concepts of product liability law discussed in this article are basically similar across all state jurisdictions.

Theories of Product Liability

In general, a person injured by a product may initiate a legal action under the following theories of liability: breach of warranty, negligence, and strict liability. Breach of warranty and negligence focus on the actions and omissions of the defendant and are often very difficult to prove, particularly when suing a large corporate manufacturer.

In strict liability, however, the focus is squarely on the product. As a result, the relevant question in a strict liability case is whether the product is defective, and if so, whether that defect is the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Whether the defect is anyone’s fault is irrelevant.

A product is “defective” if it is unreasonably dangerous when used as intended. A product may be defective in its design or in its manufacture. A product may also be defective in its marketing, meaning the manufacturer failed to disclose all of the risks associated with the product. In the typical product liability case, each side hires expert witnesses to render opinions as to whether or not a product is defective. If the case goes to trial, it is then up to a jury to decide whether a product has been proven unreasonably dangerous.

Mass Product Liability Litigation

Quite often, the same product will injure many people. Hundreds or even thousands of lawsuits may be filed all over the country alleging a particular is defective. Some examples include lawsuits over transvaginal mesh devices, metal-on-metal hip implants, and asbestos. In certain instances, these cases may be consolidated under a single court’s jurisdiction for pre-trial proceedings. This is called “multidistrict litigation”, which is under the direction of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.